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Colombian military gets payback in rescue

The plan was nothing if not audacious: A turncoat persuades rebels to bring together their most prized hostages and march them 90 miles through Colombia's wilderness.
Image: Gerardo Aguilar, Enrique Rojas
Gerardo Aguilar, left, and Enrique Rojas, the two rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia who were arrested by Army officers during the rescue of 15 hostages are escorted at a military base in Bogota on Thursday. William Fernando Martinez / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The plan was nothing if not audacious: A turncoat persuades rebels to bring together their most prized hostages and march them 90 miles through Colombia's wilderness. A month later, disguised commandos primed with acting lessons land in a helicopter and trick the rebels into handing them over.

The mission was to rescue former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, three U.S. military contractors and 11 others held captive in the Colombian jungles.

Its success hinged entirely, its planners said Thursday, on a near-total breakdown in communications between the isolated guerrilla jailers and their commanders — the net result of years of intense U.S.-Colombian military cooperation that has seriously weakened Latin America's last major rebel army.

That, and a bit of revenge.

"When I first got briefed, I said, 'This is realistic? Can this truly work?' U.S. Ambassador William Brownfield told The Associated Press. "And obviously, the answer was yes."

Rescue takes seed
Wednesday's expertly choreographed rescue had its genesis in the escape last year of a Colombian who had spent time in captivity with the three Americans and Betancourt.

But it began to gain steam only in January, when Colombian intelligence determined that the hostages were being moved, said Gen. Freddy Padilla, Colombia's armed forces chief.

The Colombians installed U.S.-provided remote-controlled video monitoring devices — which can zoom in and out — along rivers that are the only transport route through dense jungles, U.S. and Colombian officials said. U.S. surveillance planes intercepted rebel radio and satellite phone conversations and employed foliage-penetrating imagery, they said.

In mid-February, a Colombian patrol spotted the three Americans — Marc Gonsalves, Keith Stansell and Thomas Howes — bathing in the Apoporis River under guard, the first sight of the Americans since their surveillance plane crashed in 2003.

For four days, "We had eyes on them," Brownfield said.

But a rescue operation was deemed too risky and called off.

"The president's order was: rescue, yes, but without even a drop of blood," said a Colombian army general directly involved in the mission, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to disclose details.

Turncoat steps in
The general said a disgruntled member of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, had agreed to spearhead the operation. This turncoat, he said, was trusted by both the rebels' high command and by the leader of the 1st Front, which was holding the hostages.

"The FARC's communications are medieval," Padilla said. He said its command-and-control is so diminished that it sends important messages by courier.

So the turncoat was the key. He convinced Gerardo Aguila Ramirez, alias Cesar, the commander of the 1st Front, that top commanders wanted the 15 hostages moved to a rallying point, the general directly involved in the operation told the AP.

The turncoat was upset with the FARC because his own commander had taken a house and farm away from him, the general said. This was payback.

'Highest levels'
U.S. spy satellites helped track the hostages on a monthlong journey that began May 31 and ended with Wednesday's rescue.

All the while, Brownfield and a team of 100 people at the U.S. Embassy who had been dedicated to securing the American hostages' release worked closely with the Colombians running the operation.

"The truth of the matter is, we have actually come together in a way that we rarely have in the United States of America, except with longtime allies, principally NATO allies," Brownfield said of relations with Colombia's security forces, which have received more than $500 million annually in military aid since 2000.

About seven times, he said, the U.S. government had to make decisions — "at the highest levels" — about proceeding.

On Monday, President Alvaro Uribe gave the go-ahead, Padilla said.

On Tuesday, the two Russian-made Mi-17 helicopters left a military base in an Andean mountain valley, settling down for a nervous night in a wilderness clearing.

Aboard were four air force crewmen in civilian disguise, seven military intelligence agents and the guerrilla turncoat, military officials said. Two of the agents were dressed as rebels, and the rest wore white, as if representing some sort of humanitarian mission. All had taken a week and a half of acting lessons, Padilla said.

Shortly after midday on Wednesday, the helicopter touched down at the rendezvous point.

One of the agents, posing as a cameraman, recorded video as the guerrillas on the ground bound the hostages' hands on the crew's instructions, Padilla said. Tying up the hostages was part of the plan.

"These are 14 trained soldiers we're dealing with," Padilla said, referring to the captive Americans and 11 Colombian soldiers or police. "Nobody wanted to risk them trying to overpower the crew."

Once aloft, it was Cesar and his aide who were overpowered instead.

There was no need for Plan B — sending 39 helicopters and 2,000 troops to encircle the hostage-holders and trying to persuade them to give up peacefully.

The turncoat is now free and will likely receive a sizable amount from a $100 million government reward fund, the general said.

For the FARC, the rescue could not have come at a worse time. The rebels were already in disarray after losing three senior commanders in March — one killed by government bombs, a second by a turncoat bodyguard and the third, co-founder Manuel Marulanda, succumbing to a heart attack at age 78.

"Even before the rescue operation — but especially afterwards — there is every indication that the war is, for all intents and purposes, over," said Michael Shifter of The Inter-American Dialogue, a nonpartisan Washington think tank. "A very different question is whether the FARC is prepared to acknowledge that reality."

Padilla said the FARC have maintained complete radio silence since Wednesday's rescue. Its two most senior leaders, Monoy Jojoy and Alfonso Cano, are hunkered down in jungle hideouts and not communicating.

But Padilla said he thinks it will take well beyond the end of Uribe's second term in 2010 to defeat the rebels, who over 44 years have filled their ranks with peasants resentful of government neglect.

They are simply too well-entrenched, he said, and unlike Central American leftist groups of the 1980s are unprepared to enter peace talks.

"They're not ready for that process," he said. "They can't set conditions."